What is Probable Cause?
Probable cause is a legal doctrine by which law enforcement officials have the right to make an arrest without a warrant, obtain a warrant for arrest, or conduct a personal or property search. Although a variety of factors contribute to a police officer’s level of authority in any given situation, probable cause needs evidence or facts that would result in a reasonable person to believe that a suspect has committed a criminal offense.
The probable cause requirement derives from the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be searched.”
Common instances of probable cause include an admission of guilt for a specific crime or the sight and smell of contraband in plain view or plain smell. The presence of any of these facts gives permission to an officer to perform a search and make an arrest.
What Probable Cause Means to You
Although there are specific circumstances where law enforcement officials need a warrant to search you or your property, during a traffic stop, however, police only need probable cause to legally search your vehicle.
The exception to probable cause requirement for vehicle searches is consent. In most cases, vehicle searches conducted by police do not occur because they have probable cause. Instead, they happen because people are often tricked or intimidated into consenting to search requests.
It is imperative to understand that consenting to a search request automatically makes the search legal. Furthermore, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t require officers to inform you about your right to refuse.
So if you are pulled over, do not try to determine whether or not the officer has probable cause to legally search you. You always have the right to refuse search requests by saying, “Sir, I do not consent to any searches.”
If you do not offer consent, but the officer searches you anyway and finds illegal items on your person, your attorney can file a motion to suppress – or dismiss – any evidence in court. If the judge decides that the officer’s search violated the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause requirements, he or she will grant the motion. Unless the prosecution has any other forms of evidence, the charges against you would be dismissed.